Tonight, Silverdocs kicks off at the American Film Institute, Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. A week of cutting edge documentaries from across the globe, all sorts of clever directors and producers shuffling along Colesville Road, looking lost…it promises to be as good as last year’s, even if it doesn’t pack the Al Gores or Martin Scorceses of 2006.
It runs from June 12-17, with documentaries indoors and outdoors, from morning through to midnight. Come check out a flick and get yo’ think on!
Of the myriad marvels on offer, I think the following are going to be particularly good:
In the Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand, a Buddhist monk travels around the mountains on horseback. The stunning forests, covered in mist, appear as peaceful as the meditative practice of the monk. But their calm belies the reality: this remote region is dominated by the drug trade, and its hill tribe people are
Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, the Tiger Monk, has devoted himself to helping the orphaned and abandoned children of this region. He gives advice to the villagers, he prays with them, repairs temples and takes neglected and marginalized children into his care. Parents give sons as young as four over to the Tiger Monk because they know the little boys will have plenty to eat and a good upbringing.
In his Golden Horse Monastery, the Buddhist nun Mae Ead teaches the boys to read, write, cook, wash and brush their teeth. Khru Bah himself is strict. He was a tough Thai boxing champion before he found inner peace through Buddhism. His martial arts training required discipline. Children in his care have to take responsibility for themselves and their horses. Guided by the teachings of Buddha, Khru Bah’s mental training teaches them to tell right from wrong and live their lives with purpose.
The director of BUDDHA’S LOST CHLDREN, Mark Verkerk, sums up what is fascinating about Khru Bah’s story: He has translated the Buddhist ideal of infinite compassion and unconditional love into measurable action. The children he helps have been abandoned by time. He gives them the possibility of a future.
What does democracy look like in the world’s largest Communist country? Start small, very small. This impossibly charming film features a third grade class in Wahun province and the intense politicking in the race to become Class Monitor.
PLEASE VOTE FOR ME captures many elements of life in China today missed by all the magazine cover stories and astounding growth statistics. This story unfolds far from the giant factories, crowded markets, or even picturesque villages. These classrooms are state-of-the-art and the children’s homes look remarkably like middle class urban homes in the West. The film provides a private view of a microcosm of contemporary Chinese culture.
It is also a classic election drama, albeit with 7-year-olds. The three candidates, two boys and a girl, are chosen by the teachers, but they conduct real campaigns and are chosen in a free election. Ironically their goal is to become the student charged with maintaining order and reporting rule violations to the teachers. Director Weijun Chen travels home with the candidates, each a product of the one-child policy, where over-eager parents coach and cajole their child. They even participate in a little preelection gift-giving in an effort to manipulate the race so their kid will win! Systems of government may differ broadly, but human nature not so much.
Director Weijun Chen’s award-winning film TO LIVE IS BETTER THAN TO DIE was seen by millions around the globe. PLEASE VOTE FOR ME will reach over 100 million viewers as part of the international documentary project “Why Democracy?” scheduled to air globally in October 2007.
DC Area Premiere
Once in a rare while, a film comes along that draws an irresistible story from the unlikeliest source. First-time director Gary Hustwit’s HELVETICA is just such a film. This playful exploration of the font that defined modern type design is both a history of the titular typeface and an engrossing meditation on graphic art that decodes the subtle influence of fonts on our emotions, attitudes, and desires.
Conceived in Switzerland’s Haas type foundry, Helvetica was created to encapsulate the burgeoning postwar modernist movement and its hallmarks of neutrality and order. The font quickly became the default choice for corporate branding, street signage, and print design.
Inevitably, this ubiquity sparked a design-world rebellion, and the film gives equal voice to cheeky postmodernist detractors who came to view Helvetica as a tool of corporate hegemony. Reacting against uniformity, younger artists developed hand-drawn fonts, fractured layouts and an elaborate arsenal of outré methods intended to disrupt Helvetica’s “dull blanket of sameness.”
But Helvetica’s uncanny balance and cool clarity survived this onslaught, and a new generation of designers reimagined it not as a global monster of conformity but as an infinitely extensible tool that functions in any context. As the film’s cast of design luminaries trade barbs and debate the merits and pitfalls of the world’s most famous font, the mysterious ability of Helvetica to accept and contain an array of interpretations and sensibilities emerges. Like the film itself, it attunes and focuses our awareness of design and its impact on the world around us.
North America Premiere
In American culture, the affirmative impulses of hip-hop are all but completely overshadowed by the negative connotations of gangsterism, sexism, and consumerism. Women are exhibited and exploited and thugs are admired as empowered and in control. But when hip-hop started during the 1970s in the South Bronx, it was a movement of self-expression and self-actualization, advocating personal dignity and validating personal experience in the face of urban poverty, violence and disenfranchisement.
In the Cape Flats, outside Cape Town, South Africa the music of the South Bronx found a receptive audience who recognized in the American ghettos problems similar to their own. Economic apartheid is not so far from political apartheid, to the person trapped within. Despite isolation by the Western boycott during the 1980s and censorship by their own government, South Africans heard and found inspiration in American hip-hop—from early East Coast right up through Public Enemy and NWA—and in the break dancing and graffiti art that accompanied turntablism and street poetry.
The result is an indigenous South African hip-hop culture, rich with African rhythms far more explicit than the indirect influence of that continent on American R&B, and deeply expressive of the obstacles facing post-Apartheid youth: HIV-AIDS, poverty, unemployment, gangsterism, poor access to education, and gender inequity. In interviews with South African musicians and artists past and present, including members of the influential Prophets of Da City (POC), Weaam Williams gives voice to South Africa’s hip-hop subculture, and reminds Western viewers of the complexity of black experience, at home and worldwide.